Travel Diaries – Cambodia

Gap Year Days 260 – 270

After the chaos of leaving Macau, we arrived at our hotel in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, at around 9 am having had little to no sleep. As we booked our accommodation here while at the airport yesterday, we decided to spend six days in Phnom Penh. This was only the second time in our whole trip we had spent this much time in the same place, but after so many 2-3 night stays over the last month or two we were looking forward to not packing again for a few days.

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We had to wait a little until our room was ready, and while we waited we were given these drinks below. In my dazed state I didn’t ask what it was, but it tasted good. Would love to hear what it is if anyone knows!

Any idea what this blue drink with seeds is?

Not surprisingly, once we got into our room we slept all day. We ate at the hotel and slept some more. We were in Phnom Penh for more than 24 hours before we even got out the door to have a look around. I have to admit, for the whole time we were there we took it fairly easy.

We were back in the heat, with temperatures in the low to mid-thirties, so we got back into our routine of going out in the morning for a few hours and then retreating to the hotel pool or air-conditioner in the afternoon before going out again for dinner.

One morning we walked around the Royal Palace area including the riverfront, getting our bearings and marvelling at our first glimpses of the Indo-Chinese architecture.

The swirly bits on the rooftops (I’m sure they have a proper name, but I don’t know it), the lions, dragons and snakes, all covered in as much gold as possible caught our eye in every direction.

We enjoyed the buzz of the city, and even though we had never been to Cambodia before, there was that South East Asia familiarity. There is nowhere else in the world that has that lingering smell of durian!

Phnom Penh
The red buildings of the Phnom Penh Museum

We stopped in a couple of places on our walk that first morning, first for drinks then for lunch. There is an abundance of places along the riverfront offering all kinds of food.

You will be lured in by the ever-cheaper beer prices. We saw beer for as little as $0.50 a glass! We also saw the less attractive side of the city.

Even in the late morning, you can easily find bars with local girls sitting on stools out the front, like they are the ones for sale. In some ways, this is not far from the truth. Usually, they look bored, each staring into their mobile phone to pass the time.

Phnom Penh Fruit Stall
Fruit was for sale on every corner
Pink lotus flowers with yellow centres and folded petals ready for temple offerings in Cambodia
The beautiful lotus flowers were arranged with their petals tucked in as a temple offering.

One morning we decided to actually visit the Royal Palace. With an entry fee of $13AUD/$10USD, it’s a little on the pricey side for what you get. Really it’s just a few buildings – although quite nice-looking ones at that!

While the King does still live here, the private section of the palace is off-limits. There are a few small displays, and I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t more information about the royal family. It seemed most of what was there was geared towards locals who knew all the basic information.

A large gold columned building with a decorative roof of the Phnom Penh Royal Palace
The Throne Room at the Royal Palace
A line of seven mannequins dressed in similar Khmer clothes in a rainbow of colours in the Phnom Penh Royal Palace
One of the displays in the Royal Palace – traditional costume in rainbow colours

Included in the entry fee is the Silver Pagoda. We almost missed this entirely. We were about to walk out with a feeling of “Really? Is this all that’s here?” when I had a quick look at the map and noticed a whole other section. There were some lovely pagodas, the first of thousands we were to see over the coming months.

Looking up at the white fronted pagoda with a terracotta roof of the Phnom Penh Silver Pagoda
The Silver Pagoda. Named because of the silver floor panels
A large white stupa with layers of intricate decoration at the Phnom Penh Royal Palace
A beautiful stupa in the grounds of the Silver Pagoda

Another walk along the riverfront (with a coffee stop on the way) saw us at Wat Phnom. This budhist temple is right in the centre of Phnom Penh, and the tallest religious structure in the city.

It was originally built by a wealthy widow called Penh (or at least she paid for it) back in the 1300s. It has of course been renovated many times over the years.

We paid the $2USD to enter the temple and have a look inside, which is probably not really worth it. The most impressive bit is the overall view of the temple, particularly when it is all lit up at night.

Wat Phnom Clock
The garden clock with Wat Phnom behind it

One our way back from Wat Phnom we walked through the Central Markets. This place is huge, and has everything you can possibly imagine. The food section was crammed with people selling all sorts of delicious offerings. If we had known, we would not have eaten only minutes before.

There was a mix of locals and tourists downing seafood and noodles and things on sticks. There were sizzling woks and clashing of tools, vendors yelling and the neverending stream of motorbike horns. South East Asia at its best! I loved it!

A large, domed building with the rooves of market stalls of the Phnom Penh central market in front
The domed Central Market building is completely surrounded by extra market stalls, spilling out almost to the street.
Phnom Penh food
All sorts of things on sticks were available in the food section of the Central Markets
Phnom Penh Shellfish
The colourful carts of shellfish were out in the sun all over the city.

I was even more excited when I came across my favourite – mangosteens! This amazing fruit was not yet in season, but in the markets here I was able to buy some from who knows where. I probably paid way too much, but I was so eager to have these I snaffled them up!

That was my snack food bought for the next few days.

One opened and one closed mangosteen on a plate. A red fruit with white inside

Everyone who goes to Phnom Penh surely must visit the Killing Fields to learn about this atrocious part of Cambodia’s history, an event that affects almost every local person in some respect today.

We decided to book a day tour combining the Killing Fields and the S21 Prison with an afternoon on the other side of the Mekong learning about silk making and weaving and visiting a monastery.

Our day started with the Killing Fields. It was about an hour of driving from the centre of Phnom Penh before we reached the site.

I was surprised at how small it is, but that just makes the amount of deaths that happened in this area even worse.

There is not a whole lot to see now, but lumpy grassed areas where many of the mass graves have been excavated. Some of the horrors come alive with simple signs pointing out the tree that was used to kill babies and a tiny area where hundreds of women and children were found naked.

The Killing Fields
Don’t these grassy mounds look so benign?
The Killing Fields
The Killing Tree
Many brightly coloured woven bracklets hanging over wooden fence posts at The Killing Fields
Visitors have placed hundreds of bracelets on the fences around some of the burial pits

In the middle of the site a memorial has been built. This building houses seventeen layers, each one containing bones of the victims. Inside, at eye level, it is possible to see the way some of the victims were killed, with shattered skulls or severed vertebrae.

A tall light coloured structure with an intricately decorated roof in the Khmer style at The Killing Fields
The memorial in the middle of the Killing Fields contains all the bones that have been recovered

At the end of our visit we saw a short film explaining what had happened. Our guide had explained it really well on the bus on the way, so mostly for us it was a repeat of information, but with visual reinforcement.

The sombre feeling in the air as we left the room was palpable, with complete silence from even the selfie-stick-wielding contingent.

We made our way next to S21, now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. This was the place were people were taken when they were first “arrested” by the Khmer Rouge. Most people didn’t stay here long, they were soon escorted to the killing fields.

There were only seven known survivors of the prison, and at least 20000 people were sent from here to the Killing Fields.

We were not allowed to take photographs inside of the buildings. They were filled with many pictures of the prisoners. Each one was photographed as they arrived.

Some of the records were destroyed, but there are still enough to make an impression. The numbers are astounding. Some of the prisoners were Khmer soldiers. These photos were the most confronting of all. These soldiers looked like (and were) just children.

Other rooms still showed the cells the prisoners were kept in.

This building was originally a high school, and makeshift brick walls had been put up to separate spaces about 1 metre wide by 1.5m long. There was no door. The single adornment to each cell was a metal loop mortared into the wall that each prisoner was chained to.

The front porch of a long, decayed, white-washed building with open - but barred - windows and heavy timber doors of the Phnom Penh S21 prison
Before becoming the S21 prison, this was a high school

Each of the survivors had given an account of his/her time in S21. One prisoner thought himself lucky to be hosed off once a month in place of a shower. Another was not bathed a single time in his three months there. We can’t even imagine what these people have gone through!

S21 itself is not that confronting – it’s just benign buildings really – it’s what you can imagine happening that isn’t said. I think it’s important to visit to get that feeling that is present in so many places of atrocity. This just can’t happen again!

Some of our group was only doing a half-day tour, so we dropped them off and then made our way to a little local place for lunch, meeting another person for the afternoon tour. We tried a few local dishes including fish amok, which was fast becoming a favourite.

We had waved goodbye to the bus, and the rest of our afternoon was to be spent travelling by tuk-tuk and boat.

I was becoming a huge fan of tuk-tuks. They could weave through traffic and get you wherever you wanted to go faster than cars. We were also part of the crowd. So often locals would call out “hello” to test out their English skills on the blonde lady!

As we made our way towards the bridge over the Tonle Sap River we made a quick stop again at Wat Phnom so the others in our group could have a quick look from outside.

We crossed the bridge and made our way toward the Mekong ferry stop. (Phnom Penh is built where the two rivers meet, so we had to cross both.) It was a car ferry – or in this case a motorbike, tuk-tuk, tractor, bicycle and car ferry.

There was no organisation as everyone just crammed on, some at the very last second as the ferry was moving away. We were sitting upstairs near the wheelhouse, and were surprised to see that the guy driving the ferry was little more than a teenager!

Once across the Mekong, there was a more rural feeling to the area rather than a big city. We stopped first at a Buddhist monastery to have a walk in the grounds and see how the monks lived. This gave our guide a chance to give us a very brief rundown on Buddhism, some of the beliefs, traditions and ceremonies.

Our next stop was a silk factory. Over the years I have done hundreds of these types of stops during tours – the basic premise is to take you somewhere, show you the process and then encourage you to buy. While this visit was still that basic idea, I have to say it was one of the best.

It was a family-run business and literally run from outside their house only by the family members. One of the daughters spoke great English and talked us through the process from showing us the silk worms they breed to the final products.

I was absolutely in awe of the weaving process. The way the girls have to use both hands and both feet simultaneously to move the various bits of the loom is incredible.

I had a go at a very simple design with only about half the moving parts and I was clumsy and incredibly slow. It would have taken me weeks to create a scarf, and these girls do more intricate designs in hours.

Silk weaving
With each pass of the shuttle all those poles in front need to be in the right place to make the pattern. These girls change them with one hand while grabbing the shuttle and pushing it back through with the other.

For the first time on this trip, I bought myself a souvenir – a beautiful silk scarf. After seeing the work that goes into these I couldn’t help myself.

To get us back to Phnom Penh city centre we had a sunset boat cruise with snacks and drinks included. We again jumped in a tuk-tuk for the final leg back to our hotel. It had been a long day – about 11 hours – but we saw a lot we would have missed had we just chosen to go to the Killing Fields and S21 by ourselves.

Sunset over the Mekong River

We spent New Year’s Eve in Phnom Penh. We are not big party people at the best of times, but we did want to head out on New Year’s Eve. We found a local bar that had good music and stopped off there for a few drinks first.

We then decided to make our way down to the riverfront at about ten o’clock. I have never seen traffic like the streets in Phnom Penh that night!

They were seriously jammed-packed. Even intersections were blocked, with traffic lights completely ignored. Vehicles literally moved just inches at a time as they weaved through the crowd.

As pedestrians we also struggled, because not even the footpaths were clear, they were also crammed with motorbikes trying to get somewhere. We walked for a while but with the huge crowds ending up retreating back to our quiet(er) bar to see in 2018.

Our second stop in Cambodia was Siem Reap, and we were treating ourselves with a stay at the Somadevi Residences. We really loved staying here and ended up spending a lot of time in the hotel.

We got a massage for the first time on our trip. I am not a huge massage fan – for no reason, I just haven’t had a lot of them over the years I guess.

This one didn’t change that perception a whole lot. It was extremely painful for most of the massage, so not at all relaxing while it was happening, and the next day I woke up with slight muscle pain from it. It was probably good for me though!

We also did a cooking class offered by the Somadevi. We got to go with the executive chef to the markets which I really enjoyed. He talked a lot about fresh produce and what it is used for. I was able to ask all those “what is this” and “what is it for” questions I always have when walking through local food markets.

Siem Reap, Cambodia
Siem Reap markets, filled with fresh produce straight from the source
Dragonfruit, red apples and rambutans at the Siem Reap markets
Dragonfruit, rambutans, apples – lovely red fruits!

Back at the hotel, we got to help prepare a four-course traditional Khmer menu. This was not a cooking class where we were lined up, given ingredients and told “Chop this, stir that!”.

One of my big failings in life is I cannot cook! I’ve tried, I am just hopeless at it. So this was the perfect cooking class for me – I didn’t touch a thing! Simon got a bit more involved, but I stood back and watched and learned. It was really interesting listening to why things are done the way they are.

One of the dishes was the delicious fisk amok, one of the most well-known dishes in Cambodia. I had already eaten it a few times in Phnom Penh, so I was excited to learn how to cook it. Traditionally it cooks for hours, but we were shown how it could be cooked to create the same flavours in less time.

Two men in chefs hats leaning over a table preparing food during a cooking class
Lesson number one – how to chop vegetables!
Somadevi Residence, Cambodia
Look how beautiful that table is – with the starter ready to eat!
A plate with a parcel of fish amok in palm leaves, steamed rice and some wilted bok choi
Delicious fish amok is a favourite in Cambodia.

All of the dishes we made were amazing, and we could participate as much or as little in the process as we liked. I cannot recommend this cooking class enough! For $35USD it is not the cheapest class out there, but we more than got our money’s worth with the personalised attention and the information we received. You do not need to be staying at the Somadevi to do the cooking class.

Of course, the main reason we were in Siem Reap (and Cambodia!) was to visit Angkor Wat. When we were looking at how many days we were going to spend at Angkor Wat, two days seemed like a nice amount of time to not rush to see everything.

Unfortunately there are no two day tickets, but rather 1, 3 and 7 day tickets (prices are $37/$62/$72USD respectively). We then heard if you purchase a 1 day ticket after 5pm the day before you want to visit you can also use it that day to see the sunset,

So we bought a 1 day ticket exactly at 5pm, and made our way straight to Angkor Wat to watch the sunset.

The sunset is actually in the wrong direction, but this gave us about 45 minutes to explore the main Angkor Wat area, and because we lingered as long as we could (until we were told to leave by the security guards) we were able to get some photographs with no other people in them – no mean feat with the thousands of visitors there each day.

A Khmer temple at sunset reflected on a pond at Angkor Wat
Sunset at Angkor Wat may not have been dramatic the day we were there, but it did give us the opportunity for some relatively crowd free photos.
Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Another angle of Angkor Wat taken as the security guards were waving us towards the exit.
Angkor Wat
The reality of the crowds during the day

We were back again the next morning for sunrise. We had organised a tuk-tuk for the day through our hotel for $25USD, which seemed to be a fairly standard price. We were picked up at 5:30 am which allowed us to get to Angkor Wat and get a good position for the sunrise.

The crowds built up and the sun peaked out from behind the trees in the distance. It was lovely to see and I’m glad we did it, but we didn’t get one of those picture-perfect sunrises you’ve seen on the internet.

A silhouetted Khmer temple at Angkor Wat during a red sunrise with reflections in a pond in front
Sunrise over Angkor Wat

We spent the rest of the day exploring some of the many temples around the Angkor complex. It really is huge, with hundreds of temples, some big, some small, some renovated, some just a pile of stones.

All of the popular temples were crowded and it wasn’t until we ventured a little further afield that we had some areas to ourselves. Here is a small selection of the hundreds of photos I took throughout the day.

Angkor Wat
One lonely flower in the stone surrounds of an inner courtyard of Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Surrounded by jungle
Angkor Wat
Some of the lovely carved window adornments of Angkor Wat
Angkor Thom, Cambodia
A monk adds colour to another temple in the complex, Angkor Thom
Angkor Thom
Angkor Thom
Angkor Wat, Cambodia
The elevated walkway going into Baphuon temple
Angkor Wat, Cambodia
One of the many temples in the Angkor Wat complex
Angkor Wat, Cambodia
More of the many ruins
Angkor Wat, Cambodia
And more…there s just so much to see
Ta Prohm, Cambodia
Ta Prohm is disappearing back into the jungle of Cambodia
Ta Prohm, Cambodia
The Tomb Raider temple, otherwise known as Ta Prohm

We were loving our time in Cambodia. It had been relaxing and everything went smoothly with no hiccups or stress – which of course meant we were due some. On the evening before our flight out of Cambodia, Simon went to print off our e-visa’s, to discover his had not yet been approved.

We had done the application a few days earlier and mine had come through the next day and we just assumed that meant both were okay and hadn’t specifically checked Simon’s – whoops!

Our flight was at 1pm, and finally, around 11am, the e-visa came through. Talk about cutting it fine. We had spent the whole morning coming up with contingency plans, and whichever way we looked at it it was going to be expensive.

The hardest part was the exit flight. We had already had to book a flight out of a country while standing at the counter trying to check in for our flight into it and didn’t want to go through that again.

We had just enough time to print out the e-visa, book our exit flights and get to the airport – where this time we of course weren’t even asked for proof of exit!

The Verdict

Cambodia is yet another country that we really liked. It was relaxed, easy to get around, cheap, and the people were warm and friendly. I would happily recommend it to anyone.

Cambodia is one of the cheapest countries we have been to. We could easily get a meal with alcoholic drinks for under $20AUD ($15USD) but mostly it was closer to $10AUD. We saw beer as low as $0.50AUD, and accommodation in hostels advertised on signs out the front for as low as $3AUD per night.

Wifi in Cambodia was patchy. We found some places were good, with fast internet, others not so good. Most of the places we ate in Phnom Penh offered free wifi, but not in Siem Reap – unless we picked the only places that didn’t!

We did consider catching a bus from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap but decided to check out the price of flights in Cambodia too.  There was a flight for only $24USD ($32AUD) including our checked baggage, so we went with that instead.

We booked only a couple of days before the flight, so not sure if we got some super last-minute deal, but when it is this cheap there was no reason to spend hours on a bus.

Getting around in the cities of Cambodia was cheap and easy by tuk tuk. Remember to bargain, but not too hard. what ends up being a dollar for us means a lot more to the locals.


The Blue Corner Boutique Hotel
No.37,Corner St. 63 and St.180, Sangkat Beung Rang,Khan Daun Penh, Daun Penh, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
$243USD ($311AUD)

Somadevi Residence
City Center, Oknha Oum Chhay Street, Siem Reap, Cambodia
$125AUD ($100USD) including breakfast and free transfers

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Things to do in Cambodia | Phnom Penh | Siem Reap | Angkor Wat | The Killing Fields
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4 thoughts on “Travel Diaries – Cambodia”

  1. I really enjoyed this article Josie with ots of good information specially about your tour of The Killings Fields and the cooking class. Great amazing people-free photos at Angkor Wat too.

  2. This post brought back so many memories for me. I loved our visit to Phnom Penh and Siem Reap/ Angkor Wat. As a museum person I was particularly interested in the Narrowcasters tour of Choeung Ek (Killing Fields) and how they dealt with a site of trauma and genocide. I was absolutely sobbing at the final Stupa. My heart goes out to the Cambodian people and all the pain they have experienced but they’re great people. Angkor Wat is one of the most remarkable places that I’ve ever seen. I feel privileged to have travelled there.

    • Thanks Lyndall. The Killing Fields don’t look like much but the horror is real – and I’m a 70’s baby, so knowing it happened in my lifetime means it hits home harder. I forgot to write that Somadevi played the movie that Angelina Jolie made “First They Killed my Father” every night in their lounge bar (Might have to add that in!). We sat there one night and watched it. Great movie, horrific story. There are still very few Cambodians who haven’t been affected in some way.

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